Business

Tech Fears Are Showing Up on Picket Lines

The United Automobile Workers strike is in its second day, and already it’s being framed as potentially the most costly of work stoppages from the “summer of strikes.”

Unions aren’t just fighting for an inflation-beating wage boost. They also are campaigning for job security at a time when workers increasingly fear that shifts to new technologies, like electric vehicles and artificial intelligence, threaten their job, and tech bosses themselves say this gloomy outlook is inevitable.

Union leaders had a seat at the table this week in Washington at an A.I. forum organized by Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, and attended by tech leaders, such as Elon Musk, Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Jensen Huang of Nvidia. Their presence signals their growing clout in discussions about the future of the technology.

Concern over disruptive technologies are seen on the picket lines. The Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, fear studios are embracing A.I. tools to generate scripts or copy the performances of actors. “If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble,” Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, warned in July. “We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines.”

The U.A.W., meanwhile, is concerned that the industry’s shift to electric vehicles will require fewer workers, and that many of the jobs needed will be in battery factories, most of which are not unionized.

Giving workers a voice in the use of technology has taken on new urgency, said Thomas Kochan, an emeritus professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, who has been studying the future of work since the 1980s: “Generative A.I. in particular has just exploded on the scene in a way that’s going to make this one of the most controversial and one of the most important workplace issues of our time.”

The clock is ticking. It’s strategic for unions to get involved early. Otherwise, companies can say, “We’re already using the technology; we’re not really interested in your ideas about how we could be better using it,” said Adam Seth Litwin, an associate professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

Companies aren’t legally obligated to negotiate with unions over early-stage decisions on how new technologies are used. Unions “only have a right to negotiate over the impacts of technology on wages, hours and working conditions,” Kochan said. The thornier issue of what and how technology is deployed, he said, is “the frontier of collective bargaining today.”

One breakthrough for labor came in 2018, when Marriott Hotel workers went on strike at 49 locations. After a six-week stoppage, the company agreed to give the union notice before introducing technologies that would affect workers’ jobs and the right to discuss the changes with management.

Why would companies benefit from worker input? “If technologies are not developed with the user in mind, they often fail,” said Lisa Kresge, a research and policy associate at the University of California Berkeley Labor Center, who has written about union responses to technology. Take those Marriott workers: At the time, they said a new housekeeping app sent them inefficiently bouncing between floors when they could have worked faster by cleaning rooms clustered together.

“If the only option that the labor movement places on the table is ‘No, we don’t want the technology that will hurt our workers,’ that will not be enough,” said Daron Acemoglu, an economist at M.I.T. and a co-author of “Power and Progress: Our 1,000-Year Struggle Over Technology & Prosperity.” The key, he said, is for labor to articulate how the technologies can be used “to the great benefit of the workers as well as the businesses.” That’s “what’s missing right now” in the labor negotiations, Acemoglu added.

Federal proposals to regulate A.I. — in relation to work or otherwise — are barely underway. That leaves the unions, which represent only about 6 percent of the private sector work force, fighting a lonely battle. “If your company is automating and you want a voice in that process, and you are not unionized,” Acemoglu said, “then there is not much you can do.” — Sarah Kessler

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Arm flex gives markets a boost. The initial public offering of the chip design company Arm this week on the Nasdaq stock exchange was the biggest market debut in nearly two years. It raised almost $5 billion, valuing the company at nearly $68 billion, and bolstered the hopes of other companies planning to go public.

A lawmaker trip to Wall Street exposes U.S.-China dilemma. The House committee on competition with China visited New York City this week for meetings with financial executives. The discussions included a war-game-like exercise to assess the potential economic implications if China invaded Taiwan. But many executives did not want their names made public for fear of putting their China business at risk.

Google has its day in court. The biggest antitrust battle in decades began in Washington, with the Justice Department accusing Google of abusing its power as a monopoly over online search engines. The company argues that users have lots of alternatives.

“Elon Musk” is out. After weeks of headline-generating excerpts, Walter Isaacson’s biography of the Tesla-SpaceX-Starlink C.E.O. and X owner hit stores. The book grapples with Musk’s multiple identities: a man driven by an abusive childhood; a world-changing entrepreneur; and a sleep-deprived, impulsive mogul who doesn’t fully understand the extraordinary power he wields.

Natural assets

After a summer filled with catastrophic floods, blistering heat domes and devastating wildfires, government and business leaders from around the world are set to discuss efforts to mitigate climate change at the United Nations Climate Ambition Summit in New York on Wednesday.

The usual topics are on the agenda, including net-zero targets, energy transition plans and renewable energy targets.

But these solutions may be missing something fundamental, according to Partha Dasgupta, an economist at the University of Cambridge. In a 2021 report commissioned by the British government, Dasgupta made the case for shifting how natural resources are valued, and the idea has since gained momentum: Last month, the White House released a draft proposal on what should be considered in a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to ecosystem services in government, practices that draw on his work.

DealBook spoke with Dasgupta about updating economics to account for nature.

Traditional economics does not account for the value Earth provides, Dasgupta said, but instead assumes that ecosystems are self-regenerating and able to offer services indefinitely and that there will be an infinite supply of materials. His report included what he calls an “important new set of calculations” for treating natural resources like the ocean and functions, like pollination, as assets, which, theoretically, increase the chances that we invest in and manage our ecosystems to allow for the production of more goods. “Asset management is a very well understood phenomenon,” Dasgupta said. “But for a variety of reasons, Mother Nature’s assets don’t carry the signals we need to manage them adequately.”

How this idea is applied will vary from place to place, Dasgupta said, but now there is a vocabulary and method for addressing the underlying issues. The Biden proposal, for example, cites “failing to fully account for nature’s bounty” as having led to an “erosion of our nation’s natural assets.” Dasgupta called the proposal “a fine piece of work,” but he said that he wasn’t confident it would be put into effect, or that his ideas more broadly would be understood fast enough to prevent disaster. “We’re in a firefighting situation,” he said. “Extreme weather events are happening even as we speak.”

Dasgupta worries that an important nuance within his work gets lost, even as it becomes more well known. The services of nature are interconnected, and “they can be brought down like a house of cards,” he said. “You remove one card from the house and the whole house collapses.” So climate change solutions that focus on goods and tech, like replacing oil with solar power, fail to account for the full picture — the interconnectedness of everything.

Policymakers often assume that a few tweaks and some human ingenuity will allow for infinite goods and growth; Dasgupta does not.

The New York Times will speak about the climate crisis next week with global leaders, including Bill Gates; Ajay Banga, the president of the World Bank; Robin Wall Kimmerer, author and scientist; Jonas Gahr Store, the prime minister of Norway; and William Ruto, the president of Kenya. Register to watch the free livestream of the Climate Forward event on Sept. 21.


Paul Dano plays Keith Gill in “Dumb Money.”Credit…Claire Folger/Sony Pictures

On our radar: ‘Dumb Money’

Remember the meme-stock craze of 2021? The sudden jump in shares of the video game retailer GameStop, driven by Reddit-fueled day traders, rattled financial titans — especially the hedge fund moguls who had bet against the company’s stock price. It was seen briefly as a moment of Main Street’s beating Wall Street at its own game.

That heady time is chronicled in “Dumb Money,” an exuberant comedy that aims to do for GameStop what “The Big Short” did for the 2008 global financial crisis. Out now in limited release, the movie features a cast of big-name actors, including Paul Dano, America Ferrera and Seth Rogen, playing a mix of real-life characters and fictional composites who feature on both sides of the trading conflict.

“Dumb Money” is connected to Wall Street behind the scenes, too: The film was financed and produced by Teddy Schwarzman, son of the Blackstone co-founder Stephen A. Schwarzman, and written by two former Wall Street Journal reporters, Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo. But it’s not exactly sympathetic to the hedge fund side of the story — to the point that Ken Griffin of Citadel has reportedly threatened to sue over his portrayal.

Alison Willmore of Vulture wrote in a review that “the pleasant surprise of ‘Dumb Money’ is that it’s such an effective entertainment.” The New York Times’s Ben Kenigsberg described the film as “an energetic, ingratiating dramatization” but the “humanizing efforts are less inspired.”

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